The idea of hockey players from Tampa Bay

Some of the history of Tampa Bay Lightning hockey was touched on with my endorsement and love shown in the Vincent Lecavalier piece last week. The seed that Phil Esposito planted has taken firm root in Tampa Bay as the true forefather of hockey in non-traditional markets. Yeah, the Atlanta Flames preceded the Bolts, but the franchise did not take root and relocated to Calgary, Alberta.

Tampa Bay really was at the forefront of a southern surge through expansion and relocation – the Florida Panthers, Anaheim Ducks, Dallas Stars, Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes, Carolina Hurricanes, Nashville Predators, and Atlanta Thrashers (who ended up relocating to Winnipeg) and the neophyte Vegas Golden Knight.

This didn’t all come by way of Tampa Bay’s success – pro sports is a business; true expansion is to go to an untapped market – but the Lightning were at the start of it all. Starting play in a new markets, new exposure to the game to the youth of the region.

Now here’s question that coincides this: What is Tampa Bay’s best produced hockey player?

Stepping back from Tampa Bay as a professional sports market and looking at the talent pool produced for other sports at the college and professional levels… Ooh, boy.  This gets heavy, heavy, heavy. It also covers more than just the team-sport leagues as the region has borne fruit in individual sports too (Jim Courier and Jennifer Capriati in Tennis immediately come to mind, and that’s not giving name exposure to more recent players to make a mark in the sport).

Going by name only, Major League Baseball could field several teams of players with thanks to the mining of talent from the Tampa Bay Area. Do I have to drop names here? There are so many (Dwight Gooden, Howard Johnson, Dave Magadan – yes, that’s showing Mets bias on my part, Carl Everett, Brad Radke, Luis Gonzales, Fred McGriff… The list goes on and on with stars and it could very well be an extensive list of didn’t-get-far as well.

I could keep citing names from every sport (NFL and NBA players can be seen at those links) but the point is the Greatest Sport on Ice and… and… well, what fruit have we shared?

There’s a feature write-up about Dallas Eakins from ESPN, the second Florida-born story of the NHL (Val James was the first). Eakins was born and raised in Dade City, not that his hockey upbringing came here; he was born in 1967; his roots and transition to the game are chronicled here. Eakins bounced around pro-hockey before calling it a career as a player after the 2003-04 season. He’s since become a coach, including a heinous stint with the Edmonton Oilers before flocking to the AHL and coaching the Gulls, where he remains at this time.

Eleven total players from the state have gone to success and the one to boast of right now plays on the Philadelphia Flyers blue line: Shayne Gostisbehere is from Pembroke Pines on Florida’s east coast. He has the second-most games played in his career when compared to the 10 other Florida-born players, as well as the most points (84) and most points (117) in only 4 seasons of NHL play. His 15 power-play goals aren’t just the most produced but account for 88 percent of power play goals by players from Florida.

One of the other two players to ever score on the power play, Jakob Chychrun, only made his NHL debut this season (with the Arizona Coyotes). In fact, the defenseman’s lone goal was a PPG.

Shayne and Jakob aren’t the only Florida born players active in the NHL this season. Jaycob Megna, who was born in Plantation, made his NHL debut this season with the Anaheim Ducks (one assist in 14 games). Garnet Hathaway is bouncing between service with the Calgary Flames and their AHL affiliate in Stockton. He’s got 2 goals and 6 assists in 22 games at the NHL level this season.

The Quanthockey chart shows players who touched on or played extensively in the NHL in their careers and doesn’t mean that’s every player from Florida who ever got into the pipeline of pro hockey: goalie Clay Witt is from Brandon and bouncing around the lower rungs of minor league hockey.

The Quanthockey chart also doesn’t tell you who is out there, who has graduated from the Tampa Bay area youth hockey and been picked up by a club in the USHL or drawn north-of-the-border to a CHL franchise. Of course, young teens being recruited by the junior hockey franchises and leaving town is  lot less likely than kids growing up and playing for a college hockey club… in that case, it’s where they play and how they play that gives them any shot at going further.

The seeds of interest in the sport and play by youth in Tampa Bay is out there and being cultured by the Lightning in part by team success (the most natural way to glorify the sport) as well as the organization’s own Lightning Made Hockey program that works with youth directly in play.

There’s got to be someone out there who is from the Bay area and in the development system, hoping, wishing, and praying to make it. Who from the great Tampa Bay metro area makes it big in this sport remains to be seen. So does the question of when the Tampa Bay Lightning will feature a player who grew up in-state, let alone Bay-area.

While one can be a skeptic, current starlet Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs is an example of how non-traditional markets can bear fruit. Auston was born in California but grew up in Arizona; Scottsdale is his hometown.

If a guy from the desert can get that far, it’s only a matter of time before the athletic prowess of Tampa Bay shows up in the NHL and delivers.

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